Ask The Readers: Sex in Gaming

Aneka from "Krod Mandoon" A lot of RPG books contain artwork of lightly clad females, the chainmail biki is a common trope of most fantasy games and especially a lot of game book covers were obviously made with the sentence “sex sells” in mind. But aside from the artwork roleplaying games usually don’t deal with sexual themes. In most cases the artwork is just a clever ploy to make the mostly male audience interested open their wallets. I have to admit, as long as it’s tasteful and not too blatant, I don’t mind that much.

But when it comes to eroticism or even sex in actual gameplay, we are talking about a totally different beast. The games I run (and have played in) don’t usually deal with such matters. I don’t think I am a prude but in my opinion these topics don’t belong into roleplaying games. It’s just not what I want out of a roleplaying game. Your mileage may vary of course. And that’s actually what I wanted to find out. What are your thoughts on sex in gaming?

As with all “Ask The Readers” posts I want to know more about your thoughts on the matter at hand. So, please don’t be shy and post your opinion in the comments below! Every comment is much appreciated!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

12 thoughts on “Ask The Readers: Sex in Gaming”

  1. I have dealt with games that include sex, but I'm not talking about vividly describing erotica, I'm just talking about instances where sex has made an impact on events: cheating significant others (of the PCs or important NPCs) caught in the act, victims of rape (again, PCs and NPCs), plagues of STDs, and using sexual innuendo and favors to gain information or favors.

    It's not like a porno, where the point is inspired masturbation, it's a plot device that allows players to explore a facet of human psychology.

    Of course, it depends on the group and what the players' goals are, so such topics are not for everyone.

  2. @Mad Brew: What you describe is probably what I would accept in a game with mature players. As you've pointed out it's just another facet of human psychology and if it fits into the game, it's ok. I referring more to the act itself or gratuitous sex where it wasn't for plot purposes.

  3. Well sex and games… I must admit that when I was 13, back when I started playing, there where some instances of salacious sexual content. Mostly it got a laugh, but nothing terrible hard core. As I’ve grown, in size, girth, age as a GM sex has developed into other aspects of the game. Growing up in Puerto Rico I grew up watching Latin soap operas, which are a different breed that the never ending US ones, and I have a saying, a good RPG campaign is part action, part adventure and part soap opera. Soap operas are very sexual so it goes without saying that the topic has come up.

    Most times it has to do with interpersonal relationship, love, marriage, betrayal, and often it does not go beyond mere romantic love and the complications of the heart. Sometimes there is some brief description of passion, not graphic, and then a fade to black. That is not to say I have not introduced some stronger subjects, in a darker fantasy game seduction, corruption and sex played a part and while I did not run a porn adventure, there where very graphic descriptions.

    In a modern campaign I had an NPC who was discriminated for his sexual orientation, and I think bringing the real life topic into the game had a positive result and was very interesting. I love pondering moral issues in my games (within the confines and limitations of the RPG form) and sexuality is a central topic of our human condition.

    I think the longevity of the group, the fact that we are friends first and foremost, not just people that get together and play, facilitates handling some of this subjects.

  4. First of all, I agree with MadBrew that dealing with sex in a roleplaying session doesn't mean that you necessarily have to describe sex scenes. Sex as a topic and the description of explicit sexual content are different things and you can have either one without the other (after all, a porno movie shows explicit sex scenes but I wouldn't say that a porno adresses sex as a topic).

    But I also think that a rpg session can contain explicit description of sex scenes without turning into a porno-like experience. There is a big difference between porn and erotism after all and that is the reason why even games like Bacchanal may work in actual play. Obviously mature players are required in a case like this.

    I also find Zzarchov comment very interesting even if I'm not sure that I agree with his opinion. I don't like to think of my friends killing a person either, but I usually have no problem when a PC kills an NPC during a session. That's why I think that the real issue people have with explicit sexual content is actually related to the fact that the description of a sex scene almost unavoidably reveals something about the narrator. The awareness that the simple act of describing sexual content during a session might reveal fantasies, fragments of past experiences or even intimate habits is quite scary for most players (at least, it is for me). It's quite difficult to fall back on tropes and standard descriptions in such a situation but even if you manage to do that you cannot completely avoid to give out something about yourself. I think people dread the judgement that may come as a consequence of such small revelations or, conversely, they don't like the possibility that a friend's image might be "spoiled" by his own narration. I would find easier to play a Bacchanal session together with complete strangers rather than with a group of friends because I don't care what a stranger thinks about me while I want my friends to like me.

  5. We do the "scene fades out, next scene fades in" thing whenever sex comes up. That's only ever come up in the games I play over the internet, though – in my face-to-face groups, it never even gets close. I don't know if it's because my online group is mostly girls (excursus: I once ran the same campaign with an all-male group and an all-female group. The guys went, "This is our mission? Let's go do that, then." The girls spent the first half hour hitting on each other.) and my face-to-face group is mostly [incredibly awkward] guys, or because my online group is, as a whole, more experienced roleplayers.

  6. I actually think there's more of a link between the art and the awkwardness many groups feel about sexual content in their games. They're different sides of the same coin: the common element is that it's taboo in our culture, which makes it a "scarce resource".

    If sex wasn't a taboo or scarce, sex wouldn't sell RPG books and groups would probably not consider it a special subject needing special treatment in-game.

    But back in the real world where it is how it is (and dodging a rant about unnecessary boobs on game books), I see sex in games almost the same way I see it in literature, with the difference being that this is something you're sharing with others. Roleplaying games are usually about emulating a literary genre such as high fantasy. Sex in those genres our games are based on is never the point, but is just another facet of plot and characterisation. (If it is the point, it's a different genre.)

    That games are a sort of literature emulation that is shared means that you can't shake the fact that sex is a subject with a lot of baggage the way some books can. Sex does appear in (e.g.) fantasy literature, but there you're engaging in a private activity (reading) and you can let some inhibitions down. Not so when gaming with others under most circumstances, so the level of sex in gaming is less, or at least more off-screen.

    That said, there are games (such as Bacchanal mentioned up-thread) that are about exploring the players' emotional vulnerability in order to tell and experience compelling stories, and those do let you go places that usually only feel safe in the privacy of a book. Those are unusual and the sub-sub-niche of players that enjoy it is very small, but that provides some interesting contrast for more mainstream play. Essentially, most players are not interested/willing to be vulnerable enough to let down those inhibitions about sex.

    Which isn't surprising, really. The taboo is strong. Imagine if we were a culture that stigmatised violence but not sex (say, the Neanderthals of Robert J. Sawyer's trilogy). Gamers would probably be uncomfortable revealing their fantasies about violence, or more to the point, players would fear doing something violent in-game that might make the others think that they have fantasies about that particular action that they don't have.

    So, shorter me: I think it's all about what is and isn't taboo.
    .-= d7´s last blog ..A comment on POD and shipping =-.

  7. To expand on d7's comment, I'd like to point out that there is a lot of sex in the literature on which our games are based. Conan and John Carter had scantily clad damsels in distress and evilly seductive priestesses and demons. Modern urban fantasy introduces sex frequently, especially as there is now an entire genre that crosses "urban fantasy" with "supernatural romance." Pulp sci-fi has the classic "Amazon Women on the Moon" trope, along with exploring races that have radically different (and typically more open, expressive, and aggressive) mores from our own. Comic books have always had a strong, if suppressed, component of sexual titillation. And then there's always James Bond. We won't even go near anime.

    There are a few tricks, though. First, there are definite lines between "romantic themes exist," "adult themes and situations are explored," "'soft core' titillation," and "pr0n." Unfortunately, when you talk about "sex and D&D," different people are talking about different lines there. I think everyone can agree that a good RPG needs to allow for romantic themes and partners. I think most people can also agree that pr0n is pretty much inappropriate (though, I must admit, I have used it in the past in one specific circumstance, and I have been involved in a couple fanfic-style NC17 rp sessions). The awkward bits come in establishing what is okay for "adult themes" and "titillation." Everyone has different lines of what is appropriate, and different hot buttons of what really turns them off.

    Which leads to my second trick. Know your group. Are you a bunch of guys who can go to a strip club together? Then you can probably deal with the topless priestess of Loviatar trying to corrupt the barbarian with her charms. Did the whole "Buffy boffs Spike" subplot squick you guys out? Then you probably want to stick to safer waters.

    Third trick is keep it relevant. Like pretty much everything else in the game, it should only come up if it serves a purpose. Is sexuality a theme you want to explore? Is some aspect of sexuality a key aspect to one of the PCs or important NPCs (the femme fatale, the chaste knight, a young superhero struggling with homosexuality)? Is it a key part of the genre (as with much pulp and urban fantasy)? I mean, if you're running a Vampire game, and sex in some form doesn't come up, I'd say you have an unusual group.

    The fourth trick is simply knowing when to draw the curtain, and move on to the next scene. I don't care if you are non-ironically including lesbian stripper ninjas in your game. Your game, your fun. But, allusions to the sex is more than sufficient. Keep the explicit stuff for your downtime writing between sessions. It's most likely discomforting to the rest of us, and probably boring to listen to (odds are strong that anyone who would spontaneously recite "erotica" isn't very good at it). Similarly, if your knight is getting seduced by the succubus, destroying his purity, there comes a point where it is clear that the knight's will has broken, and it's probably long before the naked naughty time that we can all just safely imagine later.

    As one final comment, game mechanics for sex are pretty much never, ever necessary. Maybe a seduction skill vs. willpower, especially in games where that is an appropriate negotiation/blackmail technique. But stats for size or prowess, checks for "was it good for you?", and even checks for pregnancy and STDs are really unnecessary. (Pregnancy should only ever be a careful and deliberate story decision. STDs should be roughly as common and checked for as, say, dysentery from the local water supply. IOW, never.)
    .-= Lugh´s last blog ..Day 8 – The Journey Home =-.

  8. In the real world, a lot of people are motivated by the search for love and/or sex. I always think about what my character feels about the subject. Sometimes it comes up in game, other times it doesn't. But it's always something to keep in mind.

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